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Synthesis/Regeneration 14   (Fall 1997)

Campaigns Against Life Patenting

by Beth Burrows, President/Director, The Edmonds Institute

To some people, the question of whether to grant patents for materials derived from living entities seems boring, of interest only to patent lawyers, bureaucrats, diplomats, and the like. To me, the issue of life patenting is a blood and guts issue about ecology and democracy and economics. It is an issue about who will survive and who will decide, who will define the commons and who will own it, whose culture will be respected and whose investment of time and self will be protected, rewarded, and encouraged to flourish. I will not offer an analysis of what is ethically, socially, and ecologically wrong with the patenting of life. Here I offer only a few highlights of the recent struggle over the issue.

In Rio in 1992 at the Earth Summit, the Bush Administration embarrassed itself by refusing to sign the Biodiversity Convention. Among the reasons for refusal: the biotechnology industry's concern that its patent rights be protected.

Less than a year later, a group of farmers ransacked the offices of the Cargill Corporation in India. Cargill is one of the largest corporations in the world and its offices were wrecked because of farmer concern about seeds and patenting. In October the same year, a day after the big earthquake in India, indeed on the anniversary of Gandhi's birth, October 2, a half million people held a rally in Bangalore about the patenting that was coming via the new GATT.

...a human female…was to be engineered to have breasts that could produce milk with a certain kind of commercially desirable protein.

In Europe, years before the Bangalore rally, Baylor University applied for a patent on a human female—actually it was for a "composition of mammalian matter" but if you knew how to read the patent application, they were going for a patent on a special human female. She was to be engineered to have breasts that could produce milk with a certain kind of commercially desirable protein. People in Europe strongly objected and the patent application was withdrawn.

1995 turned into a banner year for objections to patenting: In April, indigenous peoples meeting in Fiji called for a treaty declaring the Pacific region to be "a life forms patent-free zone." Supporting earlier initiatives of the Mataatua Declaration, the Kari Oca declaration, and the Julayinbul statement, they "reaffirm(ed) that imperialism is perpetuated through intellectual property rights, science, and modern technology to control and exploit." The first of March, the European Parliament rejected legislation designed to remove all barriers to the patenting of life forms in the European Union. Although the vote did not end life patenting in Europe, as the people at Genetic Resources Action International (1) noted, it sent a strong message "about a new direction in politics (where ethical interests overrode those of industry)." Six days after the European decision, in what was called a triumph for democracy, India's Upper House of Parliament deferred indefinitely a patent amendment that would have forced the Indian government to grant patents on all life forms, their parts, characteristics and products.

On May 18, 187 religious leaders "representing virtually every major religious tradition in the US" announced their opposition to the patenting of genetically engineered animals and human genes, cells, and organs. Two weeks later, a broad coalition of consumer, environmental, indigenous, development and other non-governmental organizations met in upper New York State and issued what was named "The Blue Mountain Declaration." It began with this objection to life patents: "The humans, animals, microorganisms and plants comprising life on earth are part of the natural world into which we were all born. The conversion of these life forms, their molecules or parts into corporate property through patent monopolies is counter to the interests of the peoples of the world."

"...imperialism is perpetuated through intellectual property rights, science, and modern technology to control and exploit."

By the end of 1995, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth International, and the European Green Parties (especially those in the European Parliament) had won more victories on life patenting issues in Europe, and the folks at Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) were continuing to aggravate the US State Department and others by exposing still more US intention to patent the genetic materials of indigenous people—this time, RAFI brought to light a National Institutes of Health patent on material from the Hagahai (2). (Later the US would back down on that patent.) And in November, in large part due to the work of indigenous activists at the Biodiversity Convention in Jakarta, delegates there decided that human genetic material should not come within the scope of the Convention (or else, as Friends of the Earth International's Dan Leskien pointed out, all human genetic material—your cells and mine—would have been recognized as the property of sovereign governments [3]).

By the beginning of 1996, the life patenting issue was taking on quite a high profile. There were a lot of people to thank: Margaret Mellon, now with the Union of Concerned Scientists, who for years slowed the progress of her career as she kept others aware of what was being produced and patented and where to register complaint. Linda Bullard of the European Greens, who ruined her health with years of intense work in the European Parliament preventing the patenting of life in Europe. In India, Nanjundaswami and the farmers of the Seed Satyagraha, whose rallies against the patenting of seeds attracted nearly half a million participants. Jeremy Rifkin and Andrew Kimbrell and Ted Howard, who have objected to and litigated over the patenting of life almost organism by organism. Ronnie Cummins, who took the "No Patents on Life" campaign to the streets as part of the Pure Food Campaign. Pat Mooney and Hope Shand who researched and publicized which corporations and which governments were applying for patents, engaging in biopiracy, and treating indigenous peoples as sources of germplasm. (It is their organization-—RAFI—-that intends to bring life patenting to the International Court of Justice at the Hague.) Then too there is the brilliant analytic work of people like Martin Khor and Gurdial Nijar of the Third World Network and Vandana Shiva, physicist and ecofeminist. And there is the stunning grassroots work of activists like Vicki Corpuz and Jeanette Armstrong and Debra Harry and Alejandro Argumendo and Nilo Cayuqueyo, all of whom went out in their various ways to warn the indigenous world, people by people, tribe by tribe, that the corporate world might be coming to steal and patent their germplasm. And there are activists like John Dillon in Canada, Surendra Patel in India, Raghavan Chakravarthi in Geneva, and a man I call Mystery Lawyer in New York who helped pick apart the details of intellectual property and patenting in GATT and NAFTA. The list goes on and on and includes a relative newcomer—John Moore, the man whose doctor, without John's consent, got a patent on his cell line and made a fortune.

In November of 1994, a few months before the vote on the European patenting directive, I helped arrange for John to go to Europe to share his experiences as a patented man. He visited five countries in less than two weeks and met with parliamentarians and journalists and received unprecedented press coverage for the issue of life patenting.

"These are the guys who from behind the scenes orchestrated the theft of my cell line."

On November 12, in Basel, Switzerland, about 10 years after his doctor obtained a patent on his cell line, activist John Moore wrote in his diary: "Today we work with Swiss TV…The journalist...insists on 45 minutes of walk-bys and location shots and we wind up in front of the world corporate headquarters of Sandoz Pharmaceuticals. I am very excited. These are the guys who from behind the scenes orchestrated the theft of my cell line. It was a real treat to have the gate guard come out and question what we were doing."

There have been and there continue to be many objectors to the patenting of life. The number grows and so does the variety of tactics. To the court cases, petitions, and commentary are added conferences, publications, demonstrations, and buttons. What for many years was an arcane issue begins to take the shape of a winnable campaign. Pro life-patenting forces once pointed out that they had more than 15 years of US case law, two international trade agreements, the leadership of both political parties, and nearly all of US industry on their side, but now, the objectors to life-patenting are reminding us that for decades the Supreme Court and much of the US public supported slavery. Things just take a little time to change.


1. Genetic Resources Action International, an excellent group based in Spain, with field offices in several places in the Third World, "promotes the sustainable management and use of agricultural biodiversity based on people's control over genetic resources and local knowledge, with special emphasis in developing countries."

2. The Hagahai are indigenous people living in Papua New Guinea.

3. Ownership of human genetic materials—whether cheek scrapings or clones—whether ownership by individuals or by the state—could set the very unfortunate precedent for ownership of human beings, a condition we used to call "slavery."

July 16, Brussels, Belgium. Today the European Parliament passed a directive on patenting that will extend throughout Europe the grant of patents on living organisms.

Although the directive appears to be in direct conflict with existing provisions of the European Patent Office, to which all members of the European Union belong, as well as in conflict with the laws of several of the EU countries, it nevertheless represents a huge potential change. The degree to which future arguments against individual patents in Europe can be based in notions of public morality (ordre pubique) is uncertain.

"This is a sad day for human respect for life and for the world's biodiversity, as well as for the freedom of farmers and researchers in Europe," Greenpeace Campaigner Arnaud Apoteker told a press conference after the vote. Referring to biotechnology's now new ability in Europe to patent human genes, plants and animals, Arnaud added, "The European Parliament has voted in favor of a new bio-colonialism, which will result in big profits for the multinational "Life Sciences" industry at the expense of the environment, non-industrialized agriculture, science, medicine and public health."

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